BLM plan for central Wyo. doesn't protect sage grouse, say enviros

Posted: Mar 29, 2013

Written by

Scott Streater, E&E New PM
Sage grouse

Conservation groups are taking aim at a proposed Bureau of Land Management resource management plan covering millions of acres in central Wyoming that they say fails to adequately protect prime habitat for the imperiled greater sage grouse.

The Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and Western Watersheds Project filed a formal protest this week against portions of BLM's proposed resource management plan (RMP) for the Lander Field Office in central Wyoming primarily dealing with sage grouse.

BLM released the proposed Lander RMP and a final environmental impact statement (EIS) on the plan last month, with BLM Wyoming State Director Don Simpson praising the plan's attention to protecting the region's sage grouse habitat.

Wyoming is home to more than half the world's remaining habitat for the greater sage grouse, which the Fish and Wildlife Service nearly three years ago placed on a list of candidate species worthy of federal protection. FWS is set to make a final determination whether to add the bird to the endangered species list by 2015.

But the two groups say BLM's proposed RMP relies too much on state-designated "core sage grouse areas," which are prime grouse habitat where development is supposed to be restricted. The groups say these core areas, first devised by the state in 2008, have not stopped development from encroaching on grouse habitat that must be preserved to avoid the service placing the grouse on the endangered species list.

There are about 2.6 million acres of core areas covered by the plan, mostly in the southeast corner of the Lander Field Office, according to BLM.

"The biggest remaining population of sage grouse in the world is concentrated from Lander through the Red Desert to the Upper Green River Valley, and the Lander Field Office is a big part of that," said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie, Wyo. Molvar called the state's core areas "chock-full of loopholes."

Molvar said the groups want to see BLM adopt the recommendations put forth in late 2011 by the agency's National Technical Team (NTT) of sage grouse experts.

The NTT recommendations would prohibit surface disturbance activity within 4 miles of sage grouse breeding areas, called "leks." The buffer in the Lander plan, according to Molvar, is a little more than half a mile.

The oil and gas industry has called the NTT's recommendations "excessively restrictive" and threatened to take legal action if they are implemented.

Molvar pointed to a June letter from the Fish and Wildlife Service's Wyoming Field Office in Cheyenne in which the service urged BLM to adopt an NTT recommendation to close off core areas to future oil and gas leasing.

Jon Ratner, director of the Western Watersheds Project's Wyoming office, said protecting the sage grouse "in the heart of the sage grouse range" may be the key to keeping the bird off the endangered species list.

"Yet even in places like the Lander Field Office where strong protections would be painless from an economic development perspective, the BLM seems to be balking," Ratner said.

BLM Wyoming officials could not be reached for comment on this story.

But BLM acknowledges in the proposed Lander RMP the difficulty of managing lands to protect grouse habitat in the region, noting, "Some areas with oil and gas development potential in the planning area lie within high-quality greater sage-grouse habitat; therefore, the BLM is challenged with how to manage such development while protecting greater sage-grouse habitat."

The protest by the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and Western Watersheds Project also takes issue with BLM's proposed protections for the federally threatened desert yellowhead, and for not considering the designation of certain rare fen wetlands as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.

But the big issue with the Lander RMP is the sage grouse.

And on that point, the American Bird Conservancy, a national bird conservation group, today criticized BLM for developing the Lander RMP without first getting all the information it needed on the grouse.

The group noted a recent FWS report detailing strategies designed to guide BLM on sage grouse protection when making regional planning efforts like resource management plans.

Steve Holmer, a senior policy adviser for the conservancy, called it "disappointing" that BLM would issue a proposed RMP for the Lander region "without the benefit of this guidance."

"For example, the Lander Resource Management plan did not designate any significant protected areas for the greater sage grouse," Holmer said. "Conserving the grouse will require improving management and protecting sufficient habitat."

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